By Fred Grier
Imagine a virtual world where users can experiment, design, collaborate, and learn at the nanoscale. This virtual open access to science and technology would accelerate the scientific breakthroughs of the future.
Meet Steven McCloskey, a University of California San Diego alumni from the world’s first Department of Nanoengineering’s inaugural class, who, along with his team, is building just that. Throughout McCloskey’s undergraduate years, he conducted material science research alongside Ken Vecchio, founding chair of the renowned Nanoengineering department where they developed thermodynamic processing methods for iron-based superelastic alloys and laid the nano foundation at UCSD.
With Oculus Rift virtual reality technology being introduced that year, McCloskey and three of his colleagues ran with this virtual reality concept to create Nanome Inc. in 2015. Nanome builds intuitive software aimed at democratizing science, engineering, and research by leveraging the latest virtual reality and blockchain technology. The company’s virtual reality tools help pharmaceutical and chemical companies design new compounds.
We chatted with McCloskey, co-founder and CEO of Nanome, about his experience being a UCSD entrepreneur and the journey to successfully launch the San Diego-based startup.
Year Founded: June 2015
Headcount: 20 full-time employees
Headquartered: Qualcomm Institute (QI) Innovation Space, La Jolla
Science: Pairs virtual reality equipment with computer modeling software to provide a collaborative experience through a molecular modeling application.
Blockchain Technology: Matryx, a decentralized platform that protects scientists’ contributions, solves intellectual disputes and gives creators the credit they deserve.
McCloskey provides more detail on how the blockchain functions. “Once you create a new chemical, we take a portion of that and put it on the blockchain giving you a public and immutable stamped record to show you were the original creator. This allows us to keep track of ideas and protect intellectual property through our software.”
Features: Nanome software allows the user to enter public and private ‘rooms’ to collaborate and share their scientific ideas. After creation is made, users can easily share their work with an in-game camera that photographs your work, allowing them to receive real-time feedback or reactions from professionals and friends. Additionally, Nanome offers an in-game marketplace where users can purchase plug-ins to further their scientific discoveries and creations.
Innovative Interface: Nanome provides their users with a more friendly and intuitive way to approach pharmaceutical research. McCloskey believes now is the time to move past outdated tools like the mouse and keyboard. “We wanted to create a more intuitive way to understand protein structures and manipulate 3-dimensional data,” he said.
Tools: Working diligently over the past three years, Nanome has released several tools in the virtual reality market accessible to the public for free.
“We offer both consumer and educational facing products such as Calcflow and Nanome which are available for download in the Steam, Oculus, and Viveport stores,” McCloskey said. To adequately assist different types of users, Nanome offers a tiered licensing system for each level of expertise.
The Need: When asked to elaborate on Nanome’s mission to deliver better tools for nanoengineering design, McCloskey said, “Professionals are making a better world and a better place with better tools, but we can also enrich ourselves with our free tools. Through Nanome we can personalize medicine, fight diseases that are affecting billions of people, and extend life.”
Customers: Nanome was created for scientists and engineers working at the nanoscale, specifically protein engineering and small molecule drug development.
The Team: Recruiting top talent from the emerging nano field at UCSD, McCloskey talks more about how his team brings a diverse range of expertise.
“Our team has background experience ranging from computer science and engineering, visual arts, nano-design, and mathematics. Our CFO, Scott Morgan, brings a lot to the table as well; he has an MBA, a background in cryptocurrencies, and helped co-found the local San Diego startup Airbitz, now known as Edge.”
Funding: Nanome has raised approximately $1.2 million in total seed funding from angels and VCs. McCloskey and his team initially bootstrapped the company before opening a seed round, where they closed low five-figure deals and took home a combined $30,000 in first prize winnings from UCSD’s Entrepreneur and Ignite pitch competitions in 2017.
Competitive Edge: McCloskey explains having a first movers’ advantage in the industry has been a huge part to Nanome’s success. “Through our platform, we offer hundreds of thousands of proteins and chemicals through our databanks — all of which is readily accessible.”
Leverage: During McCloskey’s undergraduate studies, he was able to take full advantage of UCSD programs like the Basement, StartR, and Von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center. These resources were invaluable as they provided him and his team access to funding, working space, and human capital.
“It really took realizing that the university is open for collaboration if you have an idea or project and you know the right parts of campus, people are very open to working together,” McCloskey said.
Expertise: Nanome’s advisory network has broad expertise ranging from computer science, mathematics, and nanoengineering. “What’s great is that we get to talk to all these experts and receive advice from retired alumni and leverage UCSD’s huge network and its peripheral network as well,” McCloskey said.
Advisors & Mentors: Over the years, Nanome has cultivated a diverse support system of mentors and advisors. Too many helping hands to thank. McCloskey credits being able to solve difficult problems and issues effectively from active conversations with his network.
“You can receive free sage advice that is probably worth a multi-thousand dollar value from having a nice San Diego entrepreneurial ecosystem that is willing to meet up for an hour and give advice to different entrepreneurs,” he said.
What’s Next: Nanome is working to expand its virtual reality tools into other molecular design fields. “We are strategically targeting to partner with all of the top 20 pharmacies and eventually the remaining top thousand,” McCloskey said. Currently, Nanome is working with 100 universities and a few top pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
“We are regularly publishing articles on collaborative structured-based drug design on our blog, building our LinkedIn network of scientific people, and conducting customer calls; we are really working towards being the leaders in the space so we can give people the right tools to enable them to do something really cool.”
Challenges: One of Nanome’s biggest challenges is gaining recognition throughout the industry so both the top players and smaller startups can use the company’s resources and tools.
“There are biotech startups throughout San Diego that have raised $30 million through Series A funding who can benefit from our tools as they develop new drugs to cure cancer,” McCloskey said.
Projected Milestones: Nanome’s goal is to hit $1 million in recurring revenue by the end of 2019, a popular metric that many venture capitalists look out for.
“We are in the six-figure range now, but we are trying to bump that up,” McCloskey said. “Our main goal is closing out our pipeline, as well as gaining new customer deals we can close within the next 12 months.”
Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs: “Only pick a project you are deeply passionate about.” McCloskey emphasizes that you’ll be less likely to abandon things when they get tough and more willing to invest long hours to make things successful when you actually care about it. “Pick something you’re passionate about and don’t stop your motor,” he added
San Diego Ecosystem: McCloskey agrees that the San Diego ecosystem is growing. “San Diego is pooling in top talent from the outside, enticing them with the beautiful weather and blooming biotech companies here. I think that will happen in our lifetime and can shape it into a super city; it’s really cool to be a part of that process.”
Off the Clock: When McCloskey is not working, you can find him in the outdoors or at the beach. During his free time, he also enjoys hiking and rock climbing.
Editor’s Note: TritonTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on UC San Diego students (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem-solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.